Here’s a question: where did the term “hot dog” actually come from? Ask it aloud and you’re likely to start a debate that tops the combined arguments for the existence of Yeti, the location of Elvis, and the truth behind Area 51. Everyone, it seems, wants to claim responsibility for naming the All-American tradition: there are more conflicting stories here than crooked politicians in DC.
So what is the truth behind the Great Hot Dog Conspiracy? Why is there so much mystery surrounding how the humble hot dog got its name? Come along, Agent Sculley: the truth is out there, and we aim to track it down.
First: Forget Dorgan
Tad Dorgan was an American cartoonist who, along with people like Ring Lardner, helped popularize a vernacular of slang in the early 1900s. He’s generally credited with either creating or popularizing like “the cat’s meow (or pajamas),” “oh, for cryin’ out loud” and “Yes, we have no bananas.” One phrase he shouldn’t have gotten credit it for is “hot dog.”
The story goes like this: Dorgan once saw hot dog vendor Harry Stevens selling his wares by calling out “Gitchyer red-hot dachshund sausages!” Dorgan translated that to a cartoon with a dachshund dog nestled in a bun and captioned it “Get your hot dogs!”
Problem is, no one’s ever been able to actually lay hands on the actual cartoon. That doesn’t prove it didn’t happen, but there’s not much evidence that it did, either. Maybe that have it archived in Area 51.
The Feuchtwanger Story? Yeah. No.
Another legend speaks of one Antonoine Feuchtwanger, a peddler who sold hot sausages in the streets of St. Louis. The key word there is “hot”; ol’ Antonoine actually loaned customers white gloves with each purchase so the sausage eaters wouldn’t burn their hands (and wouldn’t today’s health department have a field day with THAT?). Feuchtwanger was hemorrhaging money because the customers kept walking off with the borrowed gloves, one of the earliest proofs that being nice has no place in capitalism.
Our intrepid vendor reportedly asked his brother-in-law, a baker, for help. The result was long soft rolls that fit the meat, which Feuchtwanger introduced during the St. Louis “Louisiana Purchase Exposition” in 1904: voila, the hot dog was born.
Again, great story—with almost nothing to back it up.
Germans Vs. Yale
Whether Dorgan’s cartoon or Feuchtwanger’s glove-buns existed or not, they certainly weren’t the first reference to “hot dogs.” Links (see what I did there?) from red-hots to dachshund sausages (and eventually to hot dogs) can be traced to the late 1800s and the German immigrants who brought dachshund dogs over to the New World in the first place.
Linguists point out that the expression “hot dog” began appearing in college environments in the late 1800s. Yale students were known to dub the sausages-in-a-bun vendors outside their dorms as “dog wagons” (clever, those Elis…). It’s not a huge leap from “dog” to “hot dog”: they WERE served hot, after all. In fact, the October 19, 1895, issue of the Yale Record contained an article which referred to students “munching on hot dogs.”
Fact is, Germans have been eating their “little dog” sausages with bread for a long time before the delicacy ever caught on in America. And since the sausage culture is German, it seems likely that Germans invented the practice of eating the “dachshund sausages” happily nesting in a bun.
At least that’s the most likely scenario…unromantic though it may be. And perhaps that explains why there really is no definitive history to the hot dog. Maybe the name was conjured by cigar-chomping politicians in a smoke-filled back room (you know, kinda like the American Health Care Act). Maybe it’s that touch of the unknown that fuels the hot dog’s mystique. Maybe that’s how the hot dog has maintained its position as one of America’s favorite foods.
Then again, maybe it’s simply because they taste good.